By Matt Cutugno
New York, NY, USA
Matt Cutugno - Nanjing
I’m back in the U.S. after ten weeks in Nanjing, China. I’m invariably treated so well while in the Middle Kingdom that I will always consider myself a Sinophile. Back home, I find myself reflecting on my stay in China, on the dynamics of my presence in a foreign culture, on multiculturalism, and on prejudice in general.
Many in America pride themselves on being part of the most culturally and ethnically diverse society in history. The election of Barack Obama highlighted and justified that pride, as our President is the very embodiment of our nation’s diversity.
Prejudice has no place in any society, but a multicultural one can be especially susceptible to preconceived notions about individuals and groups. In America, there are so many of us who are so different that there is the temptation to think in terms of “us” and “them.” Americans over the years have worked honestly to identify and understand the dynamics of prejudice, act in response to it, and even legislate against it.
So it is particularly upsetting to me when I see prejudice applied selectively, when I notice prejudice against one group of Americans roundly condemned and then witness its continued existence against another group of Americans.
I view prejudice against Asian Americans as a kind of “safe” prejudice. In work places and social gatherings, I have heard casual comments that reveal subtle bigotry toward Asians. Stereotypes regarding them are too common: the bespectacled math-wiz, the hard working dry cleaner or green grocer, the cyber-geek, the over-protective Asian mom. We still find comedians who joke that Asians eat the strangest foods or that they make terrible drivers or that they struggle to pronounce certain English words.
Most infamously, a few years back, talk show host Rosie O’Donnell made fun of the accents of Chinese people in a kind of singsong mockery that she thought was amusing. Would Ms. O’Donnell, a noted liberal, have mocked an African American’s speech pattern or a stereotypical gay person’s way of acting or talking? Begrudgingly, she apologized, but her apology was faint-hearted and had an air of insincerity.
Perhaps what makes Asian Americans particularly susceptible to this “safe” prejudice is the quiet dignity that many of them carry. Once kidded, even perhaps to the point of being made fun of, many Asians often just shrug it off. Other minority groups are not so easy to forgive. This in part is what makes Asian Americans such a safe target.
It is important that we get beyond the idea that some prejudices are okay, that they are “safe.” A society that treats Asian Americans with a lack of respect is not so free and enlightened after all.